Monday, September 30, 2013

Olive Garden's Fettuccine Alfredo

Friends and family know that when I go to Olive Garden I always order the exact same thing:  the minestrone soup and the fettuccine alfredo.  Why?  Because they are both delicious and, until now, I couldn't duplicate them at home!  Lucky for me I discovered a copycat recipe for the fettuccine alfredo online that, for me, is close enough to the real thing that I haven't been to Olive Garden in over a year.  And it's easy!

Of course the recipe calls for heavy cream - that's why it's so delicious!  However, I have discovered a way to cut a little fat and not lose out on the thick and creamy texture of the sauce.  I mix fat-free half-&-half with a little cornstarch to replace the heavy cream.  It works!

If you have a husband like mine who doesn't consider "plain" pasta to be a "real" meal, add some sliced, grilled chicken or sauteed shrimp to round it out.

slightly adapted from TopSecretRecipes

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 cups heavy cream OR 2 cups fat-free half-&-half whisked w/ 1 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 cup grated Parmesan + more for garnish
salt and pepper, to taste
12-16 oz. fettuccine pasta

Prepare pasta according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a saucepan over med-low heat.  Add garlic and cream or half-&-half mixture and bring to a simmer.  Whisk in cheese and simmer for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally - do not boil or sauce will separate!  Add salt and pepper, to taste.

Drain pasta and toss with sauce.  Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pre-Cooking and Freezing Ground Beef and Chicken

So I'm finally getting around to starting a new section of my blog:  Tips & Tricks.  This will kind of be like a "Cooking 101" class combined with posts about time and money savers in the kitchen.  You'll find the Tips & Tricks link at the top of the page, next to the Recipe Index.

Today I wanted to share something I picked up from my mother-in-law.  You know all those recipes that call for browned ground beef or cooked chicken?  How many times does that mean you have to defrost a pound of raw ground beef, then cook it up, or defrost some frozen chicken breasts, cook them, then shred or chop - all before you can get started on your recipe?  I did that for years.  Until my mother-in-law introduced me to a better way.  Pre-cooking large batches, THEN freezing!  And not only does this save you time by getting it all done at once, it saves you time with defrosting as well.  Cooked ground beef and chicken have a lot less water content than raw and defrosts in a fraction of the time.

This can also save you money - if you wait for ground beef or chicken to go on sale before purchasing as much as you can fit in your freezer and use within 6 months.  I have a teeny freezer, so I have to do this more often than I'd like, but it still saves me time in the kitchen so I keep doing it.  Here's how it works:

1.  Buy the ground beef or chicken when it goes on sale.  The last time I did this I bought 6 pounds of 95% lean ground beef for $2.77/lb (best price I can get in Phoenix).  When it comes to chicken, sometimes I can get bone-in split chicken breasts for as little as $0.88/lb. (but that is rare).  Most of the time I get boneless, skinless chicken breasts for about $1.67/lb.

2.  Cook it up.  I have a big wok-style pan that I use to brown the ground beef:

It can just barely hold the 6 pounds!  If you have to, do multiple batches.

It can take time and patience, but it WILL brown.  Once it does, drain it and let it cool.  You don't want to put hot beef in the freezer - ice crystals will form from the trapped steam and cause freezer burn. 

When it comes to chicken, I prefer to cook it in a slow cooker.  I find it tastes better than boiling, plus you can leave it for 4 hours and do something else.  If using bone-in chicken, I place the breasts skin side down after sprinkling them with salt and pepper:

I also add 1/2 cup of water.  I usually cook them on HIGH for 3-4 hours, because I usually stuff as many breasts in there as I can (unlike the above photo).  Basically, you cook 'em till they're done, like so:

 At this point, the meat just falls off the bone.  

I like to chop my chicken, but if you prefer to shred it, go for it.  If you want another shortcut, you can shred the chicken in a stand mixer.  I like to add about 1/4 - 1/2 cup of the broth back into the chopped chicken.  It adds flavor and keeps the chicken moist.  You can reserve the rest of the broth and put it in the fridge.  Once the fat solidifies at the top, you can scoop it off and then freeze the broth for future use.

3.  Bag it up.  I use quart-size Ziploc freezer bags to store my ground beef and chicken.  I've found that 2 1/2 cups of ground beef or chicken is roughly equal to 1 pound.  So, I divide up the 1 pound portions, squeeze out the air as best I can, then spread the bags flat for storing, like so:

You can label them if you want, but it's not hard to guess what's in there.  If you are worried about using it in time, you can certainly add the date it was cooked.  This can help if you end up doing another batch before using up what's left in the freezer. 

4.  Freeze it.  Here's what my teeny freezer looks like:

Believe it or not, there's more stuff behind what you can see.  I'm all about organization in there (not necessarily in the rest of my house...).  As you can see on the left, once something is frozen flat, you can stack it vertically!  It's a lot easier to pull things out when they are stored this way - less risk of dropping frozen food on your foot.  The ground beef wasn't frozen yet, so I set some already frozen bags down for the beef to rest on until it froze.  Then I could rearrange it vertically again.

Obviously there are other things in there besides the cooked chicken and beef, but we'll get to those in another post.  As I mentioned before, you want to use it up within 6 months.  

5.  Defrost it and use it Now that your ground beef and chicken are cooked, you have them ready whenever they are called for in a recipe.  Just defrost it in the microwave - I promise, it only takes a couple of minutes at most.  Sometimes I don't even bother defrosting it - I just plop the frozen ground beef in my spaghetti sauce and let the stove do the work.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mexican Casserole

Some recipes you can just tell will be good.  When I saw this one on, I knew it was going into rotation at our house.  This one-dish wonder was popular with the hubby and kiddo.  I served mine with a big ol' dollop of sour cream.  Just watch it on the Fritos - if you use the whole bag it will be too salty*.

slightly adapted from

1 lb. ground beef
1 packet (or 1/4 cup) taco seasoning
1 (15 oz) can refried beans
1 cup salsa (or 1 [10 oz] can Rotel, drained)
2 1/2 cups shredded Monterey or Colby Jack cheese, divided
1 (10.25 oz) bag original Fritos corn chips*
1 can sliced olives
1 tomato, chopped
2 green onions, sliced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In a large skillet, brown the ground beef and drain.  Add taco seasoning and 3/4 cup water; simmer until thickened.

In a medium-sized, microwave-safe bowl, combine the refried beans, salsa or Rotel, and 1 cup of cheese.  Cover and microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes; stir.  Continue to microwave until cheese melts and mixture is smooth.

In a 2-quart or 8x8 casserole dish, sprinkle enough Fritos to cover the bottom of the dish.  Spread bean mixture, then beef evenly over chips.  Sprinkle about 1 cup of Fritos over beef, followed by the rest of the cheese and olives.  Bake for 15 minutes or until cheese is melted and casserole is heated through.  Sprinkle with tomatoes and green onions before serving.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Peach Berry Salad with Lemon-Mint Syrup

In case you haven't noticed, I've been on a bit of a hiatus.  My daughter and I spent a month and a half in Georgia visiting my family and planning a family reunion.  Once we got back, I was busy packing for said reunion.  Then we spent a week in Utah at the reunion and had a great time.  When we got back, school started for my daughter and that meant, for me, the return of Cub Scouts.

I was starting to get back in the swing of things when my grandfather passed away.  Back to Utah I went for his funeral.  It was a lovely service and I will miss my Papa.  Luckily, I'd gone to visit him during the reunion and had one last special visit with him.  It was a good day.

Anyway, you get a sense of why I've been neglecting this poor little blog.  I feel a little remorseful since summertime is when I get the best light for my photos (meaning I don't have to have a meal ready before 4 pm to get a decent photo of it).  Oh well.

A couple days ago, a friend on Facebook asked for a fruit recipe.  She was invited to a potluck dinner and was assigned to bring a fruit dish.  I had noticed that peaches and berries were on sale at Sprouts and so I suggested a recipe I'd seen on Pinterest and had always wanted to try.  I have no idea if she made it or not, but I was inspired to go ahead and try it myself.  LOVE IT!  I know we're winding down on the summer fruit, but if you can get your hands on some peaches and berries and a handfull of mint, take a moment and make this delicious "salad" from Once Upon a Chef.

from Once Upon a Chef

4 ripe peaches, pitted and sliced
1 cup (1/2 pint) fresh blueberries
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup (1/2 pint) fresh raspberries
1 cup (1/2 pint) fresh blackberries

Combine peaches, blueberries, lemon juice, sugar, and mint in a bowl and toss gently.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill until serving (up to 6 hours).  Just before serving, gently toss in raspberries and blackberries.  Taste and add more sugar, if necessary.  Garnish with a spring of mint.

I think this Lemon-Mint syrup would be great with a salad made up of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew.  Just mix the lemon juice, sugar, and mint until the sugar dissolves, then toss with the melon before serving.